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Letter to a Comics-Loving Student February 14, 2015

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In honor of El Deafo and This One Summer being the first books to win in all three top ALA Youth Media Award categories, I am writing this long-overdue letter. 

Dear Javier,

I’m not sure if you remember me but I was your third grade teacher at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington. You were only there for a year before you moved with your mom to another part of Virginia. I was the teacher with the library of books in her classroom, who read out loud to you while we waited for buses to be called, and had everyone sit down to read independently every day. I remember there was one series of books that you read over and over and over again–Bone by Jeff Smith.

I want to say that I’m sorry for not understanding your love of comics and the genius of this series. You see, I didn’t read any sort of comics growing up–not even the ones in the newspaper most of the time. In my mind, a book was words only, and I thought that since Bone was a comic, it wasn’t the same thing. I was wrong. Bone has complicated characters, an action-filled plot and as many twists, and turns as any of the stories on my library shelves. The stakes are high, the relationships are strong and there are moments of connection and love as well as laugh-out loud humor. You learned just as much about reading from deciphering the expressions of Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone as analyzing their dialogue. You were probably my only student who knew about Moby Dick, thanks to Fone Bone. I wish I had talked about the series with you; asked you who was your favorite character, what surprised you and what you thought might happen next to Thorn and Gran’ma Ben.

I’m not teaching full time anymore but I am reading comics! I loved Cece Bell’s memoir El Deafo, the action-packed Battling Boy by Paul Pope and I’m eagerly awaiting the adventure The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks. I hope you are still reading comics too and maybe even writing and drawing your own. I hope your new teacher (and librarian) encourages you and other kids to read and share and enjoy more comics. I’m sorry it took me so long to open my mind and appreciate the value of this style of storytelling. Thank you for helping me get there.

your teacher,

Ms. Cackley


The First Drawing & Kali’s Song December 10, 2013

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Two picture books in the past couple of years have explored the possible ways that humans first discovered music and drawing. These titles would make a great starting point for students studying early humans and their world or just a fun read aloud for families.

drawingMordecai Gerstein sends the reader back in time with his first images and sentences in The First Drawing, about a boy living “…thirty thousand years ago.”  In present tense sentences that give a sense of immediacy, Gerstein sketches the reader’s life back then: “You live in a cave with your parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers…and your wolf Shadow.” “You love to watch animals.” Illustrations with bright color and scratchy line quality show how the protagonist (you) looks at clouds and stones and sees animals there, that no one else in the family can see. After an encounter with a woolly mammoth, while sitting by the fire, the young artist finally finds a way to show the rest of the family these visions–in drawings on the cave wall. After initial panic (the father throws a spear at the wall, expecting the drawing of the mammoth to charge) everyone agrees that “It’s MAGIC!” which, of course it was. And still is. In his author’s note, Gerstein points out that children are much more likely to draw than adults…so it makes sense that the first person to invent drawing was probably a child. Read this book and then do some drawing, of woolly mammoths or whatever you like!

Jeanette Winter imagines a somewhat similar tale about discovering music in Kali’s Song (complete with another woolly mammoth on the cover.) Kali is familiar with drawing, as his mother paints animals on their cave wall and tells him “Soon you’ll hunt and kill animals like those.” Kali’s father gives him a bow so that he can practice shooting, but Kali soon discovers another use for the weapon: plucking the string to make music. As in Gerstein’s book, family members are astonished by this new idea and honor Kali for his talents. This book would be fun read aloud for young musicians, kids interested in history or anyone interested in wondering a little about the past.


Those Dangerous Vegetables May 5, 2013

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How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green BeansIt’s always nice to find a brand-new picture book that provides the perfect companion to an older classic. It’s even better when the two together create a framework for a great classroom writing activity! As soon as I read How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans, a new book by David LaRochelle, I immediately thought of The Secret Knowledge of Grownups, by David Wisniewski. I had already used Wisnewski’s book for several read and think aloud activities when I was doing my school librarian internship. This new tale just gave me even more ideas.

Martha refuses to eat her green beans every Tuesday, despite her parents’ assurance that they “…are you good for you” and “…will make you big and strong.” Martha’s conviction that green beans are bad is proven one day when a gang of mean green beans (led by a mustaschioed giant in a cowboy hat) marches into town and begins to terrorize the green-bean eating populace. Eventually they capture Martha’s parents, leaving her alone in the house to eat junk food and watch television. However, as other book characters have discovered, losing your parents often has the uncomfortable side effect of making you miss the, so Martha, accompanied by her dog, sets off on a rescue mission. And when the mean green beans scoff at her threats to eat them, she shows them that she means business. The fantastic illustrations by Mark Fearing punctuate the buildup of the story perfectly, making this a great read-aloud or classroom book.

Secret Knowledge of Grown-upsIn The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups, David Wisniewski explains the real reasons why grown-ups tell you to do things like eat your vegetables or not do things like jump on the bed. It was the eating your vegetables tale (the real reason: so they don’t take over the world!) that popped into my head when I first read How Martha Saved her Parents from Green Beans. The brilliant part of the story, I think, is that the child has to do something she didn’t want to do (eat green beans) but she was still right about them being bad! It’s the perfect combination of a comeuppance for both parent and child. The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups works  on a similar structure of requiring the reader to consider two truths at once; the ‘truth’ behind each parental rule as well as the greater truth that no, many of these are probably not true. 

But they could be true, which is what makes both these books such a great jumping off point for writing. Many teachers have used Wisniewski’s books as a writing prompt, sharing some or all of the text and then asking students to brainstorm their own parental rule and the real, wacky reason behind it. I might go further and share LaRochelle’s story, then ask students to swap rules and write a short story where a character has to deal with the reality behind the rule, whether it is green beans or rampaging mattresses awoken by children jumping. After all, everyday things can be deadly. Just ask the green beans.

What My Students Are Reading: February February 24, 2012

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The year is flying by, and every time I look up, I realize another month has gone by without me noticing. For example, this blog post was originally titled ‘What My Students Are Reading: January’ and then it languished on my posts page until it was already February!

We’re hitting the “I can’t find anything to read…” point in the year. My class has spent enough time in the classroom that they claim they A. have  read everything in my library or B. can’t find anything they like. So out come a few secret weapons!

Secret Weapon #1: NEW GRAPHIC NOVELS

I always hold back about 5-6 of my really exciting graphic novels to hand out this time of year. It’s a good way to boost the confidence of some of my lower readers (“Look! I have this book just for you!”) and usually after one student reads it, it starts making the rounds of everyone else. Right now, Rapunzel’s Revenge is the book of choice. They love the crazy antics of Punzie and Jack so much that I just bought the companion Calamity Jack (Shhhh…don’t tell them!).


Every year, I order these little folders through my reading specialist that are called Reading Passports. They are made of glossy cardstock and have ten different categories of books. I tell the students that if they read one book in each category, they will earn a prize at the end of the year. This is a good way to get reluctant readers energized about reading and it encourages my strong readers to expand their reading and try some new genres. As a result, non-fiction reading is more common and some titles, such as Seymour Simon’s Stars and the National Geographic Ancient Egypt have been getting more circulation.

Secret Weapon #….oh never mind.

I don’t have any more secret weapons. My not-so-secret weapon is my persuasive powers. Nine times out of ten, I can get a student reading a book (at least for a little while) by giving short summaries of three to five books and letting them pick what looks interesting. Right now, I have students reading an old favorite, Gypsy Rizka which is probably my favorite Lloyd Alexander book outside of the Prydain Chronicles. I also have a student reading a new favorite, Anna Hibiscus, which is set in Africa and combines a fascinating setting with a charming family story.

In the Classroom: Oh My Gods! December 12, 2011

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It is now December which means….it’s time to study Ancient Greece in my class! Teaching Greece has become a little less fun, now that so many of my students have read the Percy Jackson series and can name all the gods, both Greek and Roman (although there is still MAJOR debate about how to pronounce ‘Hephaestus’). I used to have only one or two students going systematically through all the books in the Greece and Rome section of my library; now most students have read at least one of those books. Which means, of course, it’s time to buy new books!

When I heard that Donna Jo Napoli was writing an overview of Greek myths, I got very excited. I have always been a fan of Napoli’s work, as she was the first author to really open my eyes to the possibilities in exploring fairy tales and myths from different perspectives. Her books Zel, The Magic Circle, Spinners and Beast made me more aware of the power of stories.

Let me be clear, though, that my heart is still with D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. That was the book I memorized when I was 10 and it’s still a great read aloud for my class each year. So thorough, with so many minor gods and heroes that other collections leave out…Napoli, though. This collection of myths has beautiful prose–witness the following quote from the section about Gaia:

“Rules of nature? They didn’t operate. Indeed, there was no nature. There was nothing reliable in this turmoil except lack of order. And lack is the essence of need.

Out of that original need came the mother force, Gaia. All on her own. Need can do that.”

Gorgeous. Napoli also clears up a few lingering mysteries, such as Aphrodite’s parentage, details about Zeus and Hera’s relationship, and even a few theories about Athena’s birth (has anyone else put forth the theory that the men of ancient civilizations were trying to take away the supreme role of women–giving birth–by writing about gods who came from their father’s bodies?). The pictures, by Christina Bali, are also beautiful and invite repeated viewings. Sidebars with additional details and connections to science and history are included throughout, so that even the most rabid Rick Riordan fan will find something new to learn in this fantastic book.

Unfortunately, mythology is not considered essential to my curriculum on Ancient Greece. My students will not get asked questions about particular gods on their standardized tests or be required to explain the purpose of mythology to the Greek civilization. So while I usually read about the major Olympian gods and a few of my favorite heroes, I also look for ways to emphasize the big idea of the unit, which is that the Greeks came up with many ideas and innovations which are still with us today.

Lise Lunge-Larsen’s new book, Gifts from the Gods, is a perfect tool for this task. In short, dramatic sections, accompanied by detailed illustrations (sometimes with speech bubbles), Lunge-Larsen explains the mythological history’s of various words from the English language. Each tale is given a quote from a children’s book as an introduction, showing how the word is used in writing today. Some words come from Greek myths, some from Roman myths and some, such as ‘genius’ illustrate how a story, and a word, changed in meaning over time. End notes to each section give additional words that derive from the characters introduced and an author’s note explains more about why so many words come from these stories. A chart showing the corresponding Greek and Latin names is included, along with a selected bibliography, web sources and notes from the artist.

The pictures are phenomenal, as you might expect from Gareth Hinds, who created a wonderful graphic novel version of The Odyssey last year. While the Virginia State Board of Education considers democracy and architectural features such as columns to be the most important legacies of the Ancient Greeks for the United States today, I think that words and stories are just as important, if not more so, and I can’t wait to share this book with my class as proof.

Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrations by Christina Balit. Published October 2011 by National Geographic Society.

Gifts from the Gods: Ancient words and wisdom from Greek and Roman mythology by Lise Lunge-Larsen, illustrated by Gareth Hinds. Published October 2011 by Houghton Mifflin.

In the Classroom: Scientists in the Field November 29, 2011

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My students this year are voracious fiction readers. This surprised me, because usually a good percentage of a class of third graders are much more interested in information–be it sports, weapons or horses–than stories. With the exception of a dedicated fan of aviation and a few history buffs however, this year’s group of students are not particularly interested in the real world. Fortunately, there is a series out there to show them that science and the natural world around us is as surprising and magical as any fantasy story. 

Scientists in the Field is a series of books published by Harcourt that began in 1999 with the  title Once a Wolf. Since then, many more titles have been added to the series (sometimes multiple titles in a year), each profiling a scientist or group that is working to save or understand a particular species of animal or scientific problem. Written by various authors and accompanied by fantastic photographs, these books are about “adventures with a purpose” and show students the ins and outs of what scientists actually do with their time.

Reading non-fiction aloud is something I’ve always struggled with as a teacher, so I was delighted when my class last year wanted to learn more about seahorses. I read them Project Seahorse by Pamela Turner and it held their attention very well. The photographs, insets and captions break up the long chunks of text and by focusing on the work of a real scientist, the books give you a broader view of the problem rather than just the basic information about the life and habitat of the animal. My students have a much better idea of the complexity involved in saving a species when you also have to consider the lives of the people who depend on catching and selling it for survival. Other books in the series consider similar big ideas. Kakapo Rescue, which I’m reading aloud right now, shows readers that it is possible, if incredibly difficult, to save a species from near-extinction. The Hive Detectives taught me the importance of honeybees to the entire American agriculture industry. The Manatee Scientists shows how scientists in different parts of the world are working in extremely different conditions and with very different levels of support from the government and community, but still persevere in gathering their information and educating the public.

When you’re a kid, particularly a kid living in the city or suburbs, it can be hard to imagine the variety of life that exists in our world and the ways that all species are interconnected. Scientists in the Field helps students understand their world, and so are are great books to both read aloud, and to recommend to students interested in particular animals. If we want our students to learn to be engaged with their world and to care about other species, this is a great tool to help us begin those lessons.

What My Students Are Reading: October October 12, 2011

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A few of our current favorites

We are now in the second month of school, which means that my students have gotten used to the fact that there are too many books in my classroom and they have started to get demanding. “When will you get the new Percy Jackson?” “Why don’t you have Big Nate books?” “Can you get a book about lemurs?” are all common themes these days. Fortunately, there are still plenty of fun series’ to discover, so here are a few of the books my class is reading.

1. Babymouse by Jennifer and Matthew Holm. I think this brother/sister collaboration is adorable and this year both boys and girls are devouring them. The color scheme of the book is black and white and pink, so when one of my boys was reading it, a girl came up to him and asked “Why are you reading that girl book?” His response? “It’s not a girl book or a boy book. It’s just a book!” Amen, I say!

2. Calling on Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. I absolutely love this series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and I think it plays really well with fans of both the ‘complicated world-building Harry Potter’ type fantasy and the ‘more classic, fairytale retelling’ fantasy. They do have a lot of text though, so I’m thrilled I have turned my student Isabella on to the adventures of Cimorene and her companions.

3. The Boys Return by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. I usually read a Beverly Cleary or Andrew Clements book for my realistic fiction example this time of year, but because so many of my kids were already familiar with those authors, I decided to try something different. I read The Girls Get Even, which, like this book, is part of the Boys Against Girls series. Naylor does a fantastic job of inventing silly pranks and keeping the laughs coming. My kids are begging me to read the next book in the series, but I’ve told them it’s their turn to read it on their own and most of the series is now checked out. Yay!

4. Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz. Halloween is right around the corner and ghost stories, vampire books and monster tales are on every kid’s mind. These creepy stories with even creepier illustrations are always popular and this year is no exception.

All in all, a solid start to the year. Now I just have to think about how I can turn them on to non-fiction. More on that later!

Portland Means Powell’s August 28, 2011

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I recently returned from a trip to Oregon to visit friends and family. Some people, when they go traveling, search out museums, or special restaurants or outdoor activities. I look for bookstores, usually used or independent bookstores. And once there, I always have to comb through the children’s section. Who knows what could be hiding at the back of a shelf, for only $4?

In Oregon,  I hit the jackpot with Powell’s, the legendary independent bookstore in Portland. Originally a used bookstore, it now takes up an entire city block and sells both used and new books. I was extremely impressed with the selection of children’s and young adult books they had available. Every fiction and non-fiction category imaginable seemed to be there. So, having spent a decent amount of money (entirely on used and sale books, I hasten to add), I thought I would share my finds with you.

First, some non-fiction for my classroom. I have other books by this editor and I’ve found they’re a good fit for third grade; clear text in short paragraphs, color photos or illustrations and a glossary and index at the back. Native Americans are not part of my curriculum, but every now and then I get a student asking for more information. This should be a good start.

Next, some silly books. Both of these were impulse buys. I chose Fairy Shopping because I’m finding it harder and harder to get my girls who like fairies to read longer books. They only want to read the short chapter books like So and So the Rose Fairy which are all exactly the same. This is a picture book, but it’s charming and has good vocabulary. I got The Dangerous Alphabet because I will buy pretty much anything written by Neil Gaiman.

Next up are two books to use in the classroom. I use Swamp Angel to teach tall-tales (love the tales with strong women!) and Ruby’s Wish will be a good tool to teach inferencing and comprehension. Plus, it’s the first book illustrated by Sophie Blackall, one of my all-time favorites.

Finally, two books that are more for me. The Sea-Serpent’s Daughter is a lovely little story about why we have day and night, from Brazil. The pictures don’t impress me that much, but the story is nicely told and I need to add to my collection of Latin American folktales. The illustrations for The Winter Wren were extremely impressive. Lovely watercolors and a quiet story explaining a change in seasons, always one of my favorite topics for a fairy tale. That one is staying on my own shelf, where I can enjoy it!